The Steppes Are Ablaze: Corruption and Protest in Mongolia

In December 2022, corruption revelations involving the state-owned Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi (ETT) mining company sparked enormous protests in Ulaanbaatar. What initially began as a backlash against an entrenched “coal mafia” snowballed into a trenchant critique of the government’s inability (and unwillingness) to provide a better future for Mongolia’s youth. Protestors told The Diplomat that suffocating air pollution, burdensome taxes, and humiliating unemployment are driving Mongolians to the brink of despair. Highly skilled and multilingual graduates juggle three dead-end jobs to survive as mining magnates steal millions without repercussions.

Mongolia’s woes date back to the early nineties. Branko Marcetic showed that, following communism’s collapse, American politicians and senators tied to think-tanks like the International Republican Institute (IRI) spent years and millions of dollars propelling right-wing libertarians into power. The DUC (Democratic Union Coalition) tanked the economy once in office, dropped price controls, slashed pensions, cut taxes, gutted social welfare, and halved the number of government ministries.

This neoliberal onslaught had predictable consequences. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that a third of the Mongolian population ranked below nutritional starvation levels under DUC misrule. Unemployment skyrocketed to over 20% and incomes plummeted by 30% in 1997 alone. Mongolian society has yet to recover.

A scramble for Mongolia’s mineral resources erupted after the DUC passed foreign investment legislation. Companies like Centerra Gold, Purram Mining, BHP-Billeton, Rio Tinto, Itochu, Barrick Gold, Hunnu Coal, Xanadu, Cold Gold Mongolia, and QGX, among others, according to investigator Keith Harmon Snow, acquired extensive petroleum and mining concessions. Herdsmen and fragile ecosystems paid a terrible price for this corporate conquest. Local officials, eager to pocket money on the side, looked the other way as mining conglomerates rode roughshod over threadbare environmental protection laws.

The results speak for themselves. National Geographic said that unregulated hydraulic mining drained 300 lakes and cut-off around 1,500 rivers and creeks. Freshwater contamination saw dozens of local children falling ill due to liver diseases and cancers. Herds grazing near toxic uranium mines allegedly give birth to deformed offspring as well—disturbing findings the State Veterinary and Animal Breeding Agency desperately tried to conceal.

In addition, mining communities deep in the Gobi Desert are hotbeds of crime, alcohol-fueled debauchery, human trafficking, prostitution, STIs, and domestic abuse. The Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining published a damning study in 2014, which found that violence against women and girls is quite common in the Tavan Tolgoi and Oyu Tolgoi mines. Policemen spend entire days responding to phone calls about drunken spouses threatening to beat their partners. Worst of all, makeshift hotels are no different to brothels. Stories abound about cleaners finding women naked and weeping. Peer pressure ensures that many rapes go unreported.

Nomads expelled from ancestral lands have no choice but to eke out a dystopian existence in Ulaanbaatar’s overcrowded and sprawling slums. Dolgor Dashnyam, a college graduate, told the New York Times she spends her days scavenging through piles of decaying rubbish in search of scrap metal to sell for food. A chronic housing crisis killed Dolgor’s ambitions stone dead. Harmon Snow noticed that grave robbery is also a popular activity. Ancient tombs filled with hidden treasures, shiny trinkets, and beautiful artifacts are goldmines for the urban poor. No wonder Mongolians take to the streets with greater frequency and fury.

Moreover, most Mongolians want no part in the new cold war brewing between Washington and Beijing—despite the US Army’s best efforts to mold the Mongolian armed forces into a pawn that could destabilize China’s northern borders. Journalist Robert Kaplan befriended Colonel Tom Wilhelm in 2004, whose mission in Ulaanbaatar was “to make the descendants of Genghis Khan the “peacekeeping Gurkhas” of the American Empire”. Nearly two decades later, this objective has been realized.

Jargalsaikhan Mendee, Deputy Director of the Institute for Strategic Studies of Mongolia, says that American military educational exchanges and programs in Mongolia have expanded exponentially since the late nineties. Mongolian troops regularly participate in training exercises alongside NATO allies and mainly rely on US-inspired tactical and field operation manuals. Mongolia’s dependence on antiquated Soviet or Chinese combat doctrines has faded to such a degree, Admiral Robert Willard assured Congress in 2011 that Ulaanbaatar was now a reliable partner and staunch supporter of US interests in the Indo-Pacific.

Furthermore, should tensions between Washington and Beijing persist, the US may use Mongolia as a launchpad to covertly inflame nationalist sentiments and to unleash turmoil within the province of Inner Mongolia in China. David Sneath says that multiple organizations dedicated to the unification of “Southern Mongolia” with Mongolia proper are active in the United States. The New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre (SMHRIC), for example, compares Beijing’s presence in Inner Mongolia to a military occupation. Activist groups like the Inner Mongolian People’s Party (IMPP) criticize Han Chinese colonialism and hold Beijing responsible for “the policy and practice of genocide” in the region. Whether the SMHRIC or IMPP are embroiled in regime change intrigues remains to be seen.

Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in the late sixties and seventies undoubtedly caused immense harm to China’s Mongolian minority. A paranoid Beijing, dreading a Russian invasion via Moscow’s allies in Ulaanbaatar at the height of the Sino-Soviet split, ordered General Teng Haiqing to cleanse Inner Mongolia of any pro-Soviet “traitors”. Fanatical Red Guards toppled Buddhist monasteries, persecuted lama spiritual leaders, and interrogated thousands of ethnic Mongolians. Suspects were beaten to death, thrown out of buildings, or had gunpowder shoved up their noses and ignited. In 1979, the Inner Mongolian Communist Party Committee found that purges adversely affected around a million people, with approximately 23,000 murdered, another 87,188 crippled, and countless more “uprooted”, displaced, and imprisoned. The Committee even admitted that treason charges levelled against supposed “separatists”, like the Sinicized Mongol governor Yun Ze, were baseless.

Beijing has yet to fully atone for this egregious record. However, the West’s cynical weaponization of legitimate Mongolian grievances, a process well underway in mainstream media, will lead to further bloodshed in the long run. American-owned outlets like Radio Free Asia already compare Beijing’s heavy-handed language restrictions in Inner Mongolia to an ongoing cultural genocide. This incendiary rhetoric, severely lacking in nuanced analysis and reliant on insufficient evidence, will accomplish nothing apart from exacerbating Beijing’s siege mentality.

A country facing sporadically violent outbursts of Uyghur and Tibetan secessionism from within, and not mentioning the four hundred US Army land and sea bases surrounding Chinese territory from without, according to journalist John Pilger, will react with extreme prejudice to the slightest hint of foreign meddling in Inner Mongolia. As usual, ordinary Mongolians, like their parents or grandparents before them, will end up first in the firing line. Taiwan is not the only potential flashpoint between the US and China. A protracted proxy war in Mongolia is a frightening possibility—and must be averted at all costs.

If Mongols hope to avoid Ukraine’s fate, Ulaanbaatar should seriously consider asserting its neutrality and sign a nonalignment treaty with the United States, Russia, and China. Lawmakers could look to Austria’s State Treaty for inspiration. In May 1955, American, British, French, and Soviet troops concluded their decade-long occupation of post-World War II Austria after diplomats agreed to recognize Austria’s independence and neutrality. Vienna emerged from the Cold War unscathed as a result. Ideally, Ulaanbaatar would pledge to completely demilitarize Mongolia, in return for guarantees that American, Chinese, and Russian military personnel, advisors, and hardware will henceforth be prohibited from setting foot on Mongolian soil.

Finally, what can be done to tackle endemic corruption and to revitalize Mongolia’s fledgling economic sovereignty? For starters, NGOs must stop neutralizing indigenous protest movements. Harmon Snow spoke with an anonymous conservation expert who alleged that “big organizations like The Asia Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, WWF [World Wildlife Fund], WCS [Wildlife Conservation Society] and GTZ [German Technical Corporation]” spent more time sowing discord among homegrown environmental advocacy groups, such as the Mongolian Nature Protection Coalition (MNPC), rather than mobilizing a united front to confront predatory mining companies.

Herdsman Tsetsegee Munkhbayar, who was sentenced to seven years in jail in 2013 (before being pardoned) for spearheading protests outside parliament, calling out government complicity in devastating resource exploitation, claimed NGOs block or sabotage grassroots efforts to hold companies accountable for often illegal land grabs. Harmon Snow added that, beyond their support for the maintenance of “good community relations” between impoverished herdsmen and thriving gold or copper mines, some NGOs act as trojan horses for the mining industry by rigging elections and bribing various citizen groups to silence dissent.

Sociologist Shelley Feldman explains that western NGOs in the developing world tend to stymie effective forms of protest, such as strikes, boycotts, and rallies. Instead, they speak on behalf of vulnerable communities in a manner and tone unlikely to ruffle gilded feathers in state institutions or multinational boardrooms. They can also represent the agendas of wealthy donors far removed from living conditions, first-hand experience, and events on the ground. This is most definitely the case in Mongolia. Nomads banished into crumbling shantytowns, shorn of their traditional lifestyles and herds, are not being heard.

Yet mass demonstrations, encompassing the entirety of Mongolian society, can trigger systemic reform. As Harmon Snow demonstrated previously, the Mongolian people cannot afford to be cowed or divided as they face a litany of truly formidable opponents. Policemen and politicians are rumored to let loose Neo-Nazi thugs to incite riots which then justify widespread crackdowns. Activists endure surveillance, harassment, torture, secret trials, and little to no legal representation. Mining companies employ paramilitary security guards to patrol their fiefdoms and to dissuade anyone from resisting ecocidal crimes. Only sustained civil disobedience on a gargantuan scale will bring about fundamental change to a fundamentally rotten status quo.

Jean-Philippe Stone is an Irish post-graduate who recently completed a PhD in Modern History at the University of Oxford. He works as a Senior Correspondent at the Organization for World Peace. Read other articles by Jean-Philippe.